Kaalam – M. T. Vasudevan Nair

11 Mar

Let’s just cut to the chase shall we? This book left me depressed 😦 I think it was the wrong choice right after reading The God of Small Things, which is no picnic in the park either, although written in an interesting style. This one is just too languid and relentlessly oppressive. The characters seem doomed and exhibit an apathy towards battling and/or bettering their circumstances that is appalling. I can accept a couple of losers in a book – but a whole novel populated by them can get really dull and boring. Since you know nothing’s going to change because no one is interested, you begin to wonder why you should be!

KaalamThis book is by renowned Malyali author M.T. Vasudevan Nair (for which he won the Kendriya Sahitya Akademi Award), and he obviously knows his subject inside out – a joint matriarchal Nair family in an obscure village in Kerala, poor, defeated and apathetic except when it comes to petty gossip. The story tells Sethu’s story from his perspective of life in such a household – where the women run everything, where his father is absent, where poverty is omnipotent, and a young teenager like himself can find no relief, no escape. He amuses himself with what little he has – mostly for a while – with the girl next door. But Sethu is no lovable teen, not someone who evokes sympathy. He is shallow, selfish and callous and although that can be explained to a large extent by his circumstances and lack of familial support, it is his choices at crucial junctures that disappoint; choices made when he should have known better.  Money is scarce and jobs even more so, but while his friends and colleagues show a willingness to rise above circumstance, Sethu’s defeatist attitude and self-pity just irritated and frustrated me. He’s not a character I can feel sorry for and when in the end Sumitra told him off – I was screaming with relief and joy that someone finally did!

There’s a reason the joint-family system fell apart eventually – the petty jealousies, the interference, the burden of a thousand expectations, the fact that the needs of the family as a whole were always more important than the needs of its individual members, the gossip, poverty and resistance to change – none of these make for a fulfilling family life. The characters in the story are well etched – they’re just not very likable is all. Except for the three women that are involved with Sethu at different times in his life – nobody shows much spunk, least of all Sethu! They were my favourite characters! This is a translation from the original Malyalam and I get the feeling yet again that I’m missing out on something crucial, from not being able to read the original. It will be a while before I read a translation again.

Maybe my disappointment with this book is because yet again, an award winner fails to excite me! Or maybe it’s just a question of timing where I needed an uplifting story, not one where the journey seems futile and lessons stay unlearned. Or maybe it’s just too much of Kerala for this hapless Goan 😉 I confess that towards the end, the narrative did hold more interest especially when Sethu appeared to finally be gearing up for a righteous confrontation. However Nair downplays the actual confrontation with his staid narrative style, which robs much of the joy of victory. As in many stories set in Kerala – there is a river! I guess the flow of water and the passage of time are so conducive to comparisons, that authors cannot resist the temptation of that particular metaphor! Nair doesn’t either. Although there are a few instances in the narrative when he is clever and sharp, using irony with great effect, the overall tempo and flow is a little sluggish for me, although I accept perhaps apt for the story being told. I think the best lines for me were the final lines in the book,

“The river, his river, dreaming of floods even as it grew dry, lay behind him like a lifeless body drained of blood and movement.”

A great line, but such a depressing thought! Although I tried to imagine that Nair is telling us that the worst is behind Sethu…I just can’t bring myself to believe that’s true. Nothing happens throughout the story to suggest a change in Sethu’s attitude or approach. He is still as self-pitiful and selfish as ever. Always dreaming, never doing! A weak character is our Mr. Sethu and I don’t have patience for the likes of him. I would love to hear if any of you out there have read this in the original Malyalam? Would be interesting to compare notes! I quite liked the cover on my copy though – a painting by one of India’s foremost artists Anjolie Ela Menon entitled Shapurjat.

For me a disappointing read and rather anti-climatic after a great run of books in the past few weeks. I truly think this is a great time to take a break for reading the List – too much reading ‘outside the box’ has left me jaded I think 😛 Time for Ms. Christie – YES! A return to their roots never hurt a soul 😉 Murder on the Orient Express it is in the company of the inimitable Hercule Poirot 😀 

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Posted by on March 11, 2013 in Non-Booker Reviews


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